The Ajanta Caves by Benoy K Behl
I read this book as part of my readings for the Indian Art and Culture course that I am currently pursuing at National Museum Institute. I stumbled upon this beautiful book in a library while looking for books that explain the paintings at Ajanta and as a layperson I could not have asked for more.
Author Benoy K Behl is a photographer who specializes in low light photography. He began the project of photographing the paintings of Ajanta that exist in the dark caves. These paintings had not been photographed till then, as the use of artificial lights was not permitted in order to preserve whatever remains of the paintings. So to begin with it was just a photography project may be a challenging one for him, but as it happens, once you look those masterpieces of Ajanta both in sculpture and in paintings, you cannot but be impacted for life. The centuries old art can still speak to you and convey the message of compassion that Buddha stands for.
Author partnered with Sangitika Nigam to chronicle the various Jatakas that are painted on the walls of Ajanta caves, especially those in caves 1,2,16 & 17. There is a beautiful interplay of colorful painting or their photographs to be technically correct and the text written by Sangitika. It takes you through the story of the Jataka and then explains each scene from that story that has been painted. Book also goes on to explain the painting through its various elements like the people depicted, the animals painted and their significance, the foliage painted. She makes a special mention of the garments and ornaments worn by the figures in the paintings and the fact that we still continue to use those patterns and designs. This is a remarkable observation as this tells us about the longevity and continuity of our traditions. Stories are concise and the scenes have been explained very well. Sometimes, some parts of the scene depicted have yet not been deciphered, and the author honestly mentions the same.
The paintings other than Jatakas, like the scenes from Buddha’s life and ornamental designs on the ceilings are also well captured and explained. It is unfortunate that most of these paintings are in a dilapidated state. For if they were preserved well, what a masterpieces they would have been and how much more we would know about our heritage.
For someone who has visited the caves would immediately be able to identify with all the paintings mentioned here. For someone who has not been there, these pictures and stories would inspire them to make a trip to Ajanta. If you are planning to visit Ajanta, I would recommend reading this book before going and you would get far more out of your trip.
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